Monday, December 23, 2013

Double Feature: Welcome to Night Vale and The Nutcracker

I couldn't post yesterday because of zombies, which you can read about on my book blog. I'm still scared something is going to grab me from under the furniture. Stupid imagination.

Last week, I got to do one of my new favorite things and one of my old favorite things. Rarely am I so blessed in social events! On Wednesday night, I went to a live taping of "Welcome to Night Vale" at the Bell House here in Gowanus, Brooklyn. And on Saturday night, the BF and I went to Lincoln Center to see "The Nutcracker."

I like the contrast. "Night Vale" is a podcast, an entirely dialog-based medium with no visual element. "The Nutcracker" is a ballet, which, as we've established in my family, has no lyrics or dialog. Sound plays a big part in both a podcast and a ballet, but in a podcast, sound the only means of conveying information, while in a ballet, the visible movement of the dancers tells the story in conjunction with the music from the orchestra.

Both art forms encourage a level of engagement on the part of the audience far beyond that of a movie. Movie simulate reality:  here is a visual image and here is the ambient noise, the dialog, and even some music to set the mood.
What, you don't hear theme music everywhere you go?
Movies are easy to understand and absorb. Even your brain waves relax and slow down when you're watching one. But a ballet or a podcast asks an audience to take a more active role by mentally filling in the visual or auditory negative space to complete the narrative experience, using the information conveyed by pure dialog or movement.

I also see some parallels between the subject matter of "Night Vale" and The Nutcracker. For those who may not be familiar with America's most popular podcast, "Welcome to Night Vale" is an ongoing series of community radio updates from the small desert community of Night Vale. In Night Vale, librarians are hideous monsters, real estate agents live in the bellies of wild deer, the sheriff's Secret Police monitor your every word, and the dog park is never to be entered by either dog, or human, or sentient glowing cloud that drops animal corpses on bystanders. All of this is considered normal to the citizens of Night Vale, half of whom are genetically incapable of feeling physical pain.

Honestly, the whole project is a bit hard to describe, because the subject matter is creepy but also treated as mundane, so "Night Vale" is more of a comedy than a horror show. I didn't know just how funny it was, however, until I heard it in performed in front of a couple hundred people. Then I realized that shit is hysterical. It's all available for free at the link above, and I highly recommend it. (Listen for celebrity cameos! Mara Wilson, who played the lead in 1996's "Matilda" movie, is the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your House. And Jackson Publick, co-creator of "The Venture Bros.," is all five voices of Hiram McDaniels, mayoral candidate and five-headed dragon.)

So what does any of that have to do with The Nutcracker? Aside from the obvious parallel that The Nutcracker is America's most popular ballet, it's also--when you think about it--it's own special kind of creepy that seems normal to the characters in that world. A little girl gets an old man-doll/kitchen implement for Christmas. The little girl shrinks while the doll comes to life and they fight a giant six-headed rat. The doll turns into a little boy and presents her with the crown of the rat monster, which is supposed to be romantic, and then spirits her away to a magical land where the snacks and racist beverages dance for them. But it's okay, because after the food dances, he takes the little girl home again in Santa's sleigh. Although Santa is nowhere to be seen, so I think at some point, the kids jacked Santa's ride.

Maybe one of the "oriental" beverages stole it. Seriously, does no one else find this distasteful?
If Night Vale was going to stage a ballet, and it was all going to go horribly wrong, as everything does in Night Vale, I don't think they would actually have to change anything about The Nutcracker.

This is probably why The Nutcracker is my favorite Christmas activity. It has so little to do with Christmas! There's no hint of Jesus or the Nativity, no part of the Santa myth, really nothing to connect it with the holiday other than the fact that the Nutcracker is given as a Christmas present to Marie. (I always thought it was Clara, but the playbill called her Marie on the cast list, so where the hell have I been getting Clara all these years?) For a non-Christian who always knew that it was Henry Dudois under the Santa costume at the Ocean View Community Center, this weird European fairy tale is Christmas to me. It has all the magic and delight and charm I'm supposed to feel around the holiday, with none of the uncomfortable religious baggage.

The Nutcracker even has an answer for my ambivalence toward gift-giving in a consumer society. Marie is given a single gift that has the power to transport her to a magical fairyland where candy comes alive and little children live in the skirts of drag queens.

The best gifts are transcendent. They open up the world to marvelous new possibilities. For little kids, toys do the trick, because their imaginations haven't yet been pounded into submission by years of reality and tooth-brushing. But grown-up little kids can still find that magical sense of possibility in gifts.

Especially if that gift is two tickets to see "The Nutcracker." Thank you, Mum!

Mele Kalikimaka. And good night, Night Vale. Good night.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Classic Wonder Woman is a little odd. If you ever happen to cruise through some of the original 1940s comics, you'll notice a great deal of light bondage and domination/submission themes. The creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, was into that sort of thing.
He also invented the systolic blood pressure test. Yowzah!
Even though the sexual subtext is about as transparent as a jellyfish, I can't find it in me to be offended. I don't know if it's ye olde tymey charme, or my postmodern detachment from what used to titillate less jaded audiences, but there's something kind of wholesome about it. It's sleazy, but in a kid-friendly way--like grubbing for presents at Christmas.

Sure, Christmas tends to bring out the greedy despot side of children everywhere, and then the rest of us have to endure a billion Christmas specials peddling the myth that it isn't about the presents. (Kids aren't fooled, by the way. You can turn off those Rankin/Bass demons.) But look how happy they are when they get the presents that they want! Isn't that cute? Look at that smile!

Like I said, sleazy, but wholesome.

Happy Holidays, I guess.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Arbitrary rules for holiday parties

My co-worker A was considering buying a Christmas sweater last week. She called me over to look at a couple of sweaters online, one with reindeer and the other with--well, also reindeer, but smaller.
Dramatized here.
We got to talking about the sense in buying an item of clothing that you can only really wear for about six weeks out of the year: immediately after Thanksgiving up until December 26. Even if the sweater isn't explicitly Christmas themed--snowflakes, for example, instead of Santa Claus or a Christmas tree--it's really only suitable for the Christmas season.

This is holiday party arbitrary rule number 1.

Warming up to the topic, we discussed the context in which one would wear a Christmas sweater. You can wear a Christmas sweater to a holiday party, but you can only wear it to more than one holiday party in a season if the parties aren't frequented by the same people. For example, you can wear it to the office party and then to your family's home for Christmas dinner, but you can't wear it to the office party and then wear it again to a bar get-together with some folks from work, because the same group of people will see you in it. Arbitrary rule number 2.

"No pictures! They'll be up on Facebook!" Matt cuts in at this point.

"And you can't wear the same party outfit to the same party two years in a row," I said, stating arbitrary rule number 3. "You need to wait at least three years between parties to wear the outfit again."

I guess at this point, Matt just couldn't handle any more feminine nonsense. He stood up and said, "I love how you just make up this arbitrary rules, but you say them with such an air of authority and confidence, as if they were real, actual things that people do!"

And we all had a good laugh.

BUT--allow me to describe my wardrobe saga of the holiday season thus far, since I went to three parties this week and will be hosting another one tomorrow. I wore my 2012 Holiday Tea dress at the President's Party last Thursday. I'm going to wear my 2012 President's Party dress to the Holiday Tea on Monday. I wore my 2012 Valentine's Day dress to Thanksgiving 2013. I'm going to wear yesterday's post-Hanukkah party outfit to Valentine's Day 2014, and 2009's Christmas Day outfit to 2013 Christmas Day because it's time again.
Choose, unless you wish to stay here for evermore,
To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four:
First, however slyly the poison tries to hide
You will always find some on nettle wine's left side...

I'm never going to wear last Friday night's party outfit to another party again, because I didn't realize I was going to be the most casually dressed person there, BF. 

I know to some, these rules and distinctions seem arbitrary. Lots of things women have to do probably seem arbitrary to men. Hell, they seem arbitrary to me sometimes! But that doesn't make them any less real. And it doesn't mean that other women aren't watching to make sure you follow the rules. "The Simpsons" did a whole episode about it, so you know it's true.

That's arbitrary rule number 4.

And it's the most important rule of all.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Play us off

Tuesday was our final radio show of the Fall 2013 season. It was also our 50th live band on the show, so like most special occasions and anniversaries, everything went wrong.

One of our sound techs didn't show up. The broadcast cut out completely for the band's first song. There were roaches scurrying around. Some student wandered in and tried to put up anti-fracking posters while the band was playing. The broadcast cut out again during the first half of the interview. The cake wasn't tasty. The cat bit the drummer.

Really, all we needed for the evening to be complete was for the slow cooker to break and leave us with no chili.

But you know what? The band was great. I guess that's showbiz, kid!

Here's to 50 great bands on the Rodent Hour, and to another 50 more.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

More than you ever wanted to know about tea

We had our office Thanksgiving party last week. I was doing pretty good, socially--shoes on and everything--and then I got some cheesecake in me and found myself doing the thing. All nerds know what I'm talking about, when you find yourself talking for an inappropriately long time about a topic no one has any interest in except yourself.

Kate Beaton knows.
I could feel it happening--I could see it in the slightly alarmed expression of my listeners--but I couldn't stop myself. I was just--so--interested in the topic!

It was tea. I was talking about tea. I was talking about tea because I love tea and everyone else needs to love tea as much as I do, and if they don't, it's only because they don't know how delightful it is, so I have to tell them.

You see how easy it is to fall into doing the thing.

I'm especially jazzed about tea right now because I went to the Big Island a couple of weeks ago and my sister took me to a tea garden. As far as best gifts ever received, this is now tied for the number one spot with the Christmas 1994 tea sampler from me mum (with 20 different kinds of tea).
Fuckin tea!
Let me tell you all the things I learned at the tea garden! This particular tea garden is located on the grounds of Volcano Winery, the southern-most winery in the U.S. It's about a mile above sea level, near Volcano Village in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Volcano Winery has seven acres of tea plants, which as you can see from the above picture, are basically just hedges. (Honestly, if I hadn't been told that this hedge made tea, I would have been like, Hey Sparky, what's with all the hedge?)

The tea that you drink is made from the new baby tea leaves, and the different types of tea--green, black, white--depend on the maturity of the leaves at the time of harvest. The newest leaves, which are still rolled up and not open yet, make silver needle tea. Just-opened leaves make white tea, slightly more mature leaves make green tea, and the leaves at the last stage of maturity, before they're just useless hedge, make black tea. At Volcano Winery, the black tea leaves are dried with a big fan, while the finer grades of tea are air-dried over a few days.

Tea leaves themselves don't smell like much of anything, even if you crush them between your fingers. Tea flowers, on the other hand, smell exactly like brewed tea. It is the damnedest thing.
Brewed tea. Who knew?
Each different tea grade requires different temperatures of water for brewing. Black tea needs water just at the boiling point. Green tea needs water slightly below the boiling point, otherwise you scorch the tea and it becomes bitter. I already knew about the water, because when I lived in Waikiki, I used to visit this Taiwanese tea shop in the Kings Village shopping center. Kings Village is the kitchiest, tackiest place you can imagine--it looks like Santa's Village, except it's open year round so there's no end to the suffering.
Three years I lived across the street from this.
However, tucked away in a corner of this Block 'o Camp was the Cha-No-Ma Teahouse, an oasis of good taste, simple but expensive sculptures, and orchids that were always in bloom. The only other customers I ever saw in there were old Chinese ladies in Chanel suits.

This place was magical. The experience would begin with charcoal peanuts, which were like little briquettes with a peanut inside, to cleanse the palate and settle the stomach. I'd pick a tea--usually one of the cheaper ones on the menu, because this was a nice place and the tea could get pretty fancy--and the owner would bring out a tea set and a HUGE kettle of hot water. He would brew the first pot himself, filling the tiny teapot and letting it overflow into the wooden tea tray. After a few seconds, he'd dump the tea through the strainer into the other tiny teapot. Then he'd pour the tea into the first set of cups. Those were the smell-good cups. You'd pour the tea out of those cups into the drink-cups, and then smell the residue left in the smell-good cup. Then you'd drink. And then you'd fill the tiny tea pot yourself from the kettle and start it all over again. 
Clockwise from left: charcoal peanuts, tea strainer, first teapot, second tea pot, smell-good cup, drink-cup.
Each round gets you about one full mouthful of tea. It takes about an hour and a half to finish the kettle. And if you can think of a better way to spend your afternoon, you can just shut your filthy liar mouth because there is no better way to spend your afternoon than in Cha-No-Ma.

The second or third time I went back, the owner taught me that tea should be treated as a vegetable. "You don't dry asparagus, do you?" he demanded. No, I agreed, you did not. "Americans only know about Lipton," he said. It's a travesty, I agreed, tea is so much more. We were kindred spirits, he and I.

He would have looked at my pictures of the Volcano Winery tea garden without searching furtively for another party-goer to rescue them from my clutches. Where are you going? Don't you want to see me picking some of the leaves?
I haven't even gotten to the pictures I took of me drinking the tea! I have to explain what my facial expressions signify about the taste and bouquet of the brew at that moment!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

It's cold and stinks of pork

This year, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving fall on the same day. It's weird how we can extrapolate holidays to infinity--I could find out the date of Hanukkah for the next 200 years with a nanosecond Google search--but every year there's some temporal coincidence like this and we all have to read lifestyle columns about how to plan an appropriate theme party. Maybe I've watched too much Doctor Who at this point in my life, but do we need to coo and marvel over this sort of thing as if it were genuinely unexpected?

With that cynical attitude, I clearly haven't watched enough Doctor Who. Happy 50th Anniversary, fellow Whovians!
Happy Thanksgivukkah, anyway. No reason we shouldn't take pleasure in the simple things. I'm just a little grumpy because I cooked hot sausage for stuffed mushrooms, and now I have to leave the windows open to let the grease smoke out. I already took the smoke detector off the wall (and this time, I'm going to remember to put it back on, because that is how the Great Bra Fire of 2012 escalated so quickly). It's 30 degrees out and windy as fuck, so my apartment is freezing cold and stinking of pork to boot. Days I'll have to live in this pork-stink. DAYS!

Yes, it's that time of year again, when I make my one fancy dish: stuffed mushrooms. Like that guitar player in the park who only knows "Hotel California," I've got one good thing to offer the world and by god, I'm gonna do it!

One time, for the department Christmas party, I tried to make Spanish rice, and no one ate any of it--rightly so, because it was super-bland haole food that even I didn't want to eat. I'll never embarrass myself like that again. Everyone loves my stuffed mushrooms, and why wouldn't they? You can't go wrong with full-fat cream cheese and spicy sausage. I can already tell I'm going to have some of the stuffing mixture left over, and I'm looking forward to having some on a microwaved potato for dinner tonight. I'll shut the windows, crank the space heater, and stuff my gullet with delicious pork while I anticipate the office Thanksgivukkah party.

UPDATE: I ate too much cream cheese and sausage and now my belly hurts and everything is cold and stinks of pork. I'm going to watch more Doctor Who.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Urban Foraging

Uh-oh. Almost everyone who wished me a happy birthday last week said something about my blog. I think I have to start posting again.

My latest adventure in urban foraging is the best one yet. I've found apples, seashells, vacuum cleaners, dishes, and books on the stoops of Brooklyn, but a couple of weeks ago, my stubborn refusal to make eye contact with other pedestrians paid off big when I found an iPod on the ground.

I never wanted an iPod. On the other hand, I never particularly wanted a tablet, and then I got one for Christmas a while back and now I can't imagine what I'd do without it. How else would I be able to watch cartoons AND scroll through my tumblr feed at the same time? Same for my smart phone: what would I do if I couldn't take upside-down videos of  interesting birds I encounter? (Is there a way to flip videos like you flip regular pictures? Because my phone never warns me that I'm shooting upside down, I just have to find out later when I upload the footage to my computer.)

I got an iPod connector from the dollar store across the street from work, spent two hours downloading iTunes onto my rickety old laptop (and uninstalling all the useless toolbars and crap that came with it), hit "restore factory settings," and "Pete's iPod" became "Rachel's iPod."

Poor Pete--hanging out in Brooklyn, having a good time, and just like that, his brand new iPod pops out of his pocket and into the hands of a stranger who replaces his collection of carefully curated 80s dance music with 13 hours of "Star Talk" with Neil DeGrass Tyson.

But enough about Pete! Rachel's iPod also features every episode of "Welcome to Night Vale," and several hours of local music from Brooklyn's hottest up-and-comers. Two years into hosting a radio show and I've finally gotten around to listening to all of those CDs our guest bands leave in the station. And they're SUPER good! They must be amazing live!

Also, I've discovered this new thing, where you stick your headphones in and listen to music instead of paying attention to other people or traffic on the way to work. Have other people thought of this? It's pretty amazing. I haven't been hit by a single bike yet, either. Let THEM get out of MY way.

I've gone too far. This may be too much power for me.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Mistress and Her Stable

This is a Polaroid picture.
Weird to see one, right? They don't even make Polaroid film anymore, what with the advent of high resolution cameras on our pocket phones. Photography students have all the good shit.

Last night was the last show of the summer season on the Rodent Hour. Our guests were Von Shakes, who are really too good to be on our little dog-and-pony show (they're playing on the Fox morning show next week), but they came anyway and we had a great time.

We didn't plan the photo this way--I was just put in front because I'm the shortest and ended up absorbing the light from the flash like a sheet of white paper. What I like best about this picture is that it looks like Mistress Rachel is showing off her stable of man-slaves for your pain and pleasure.

It reminds me of one of my high school graduation pictures. There was nothing overtly sexual about that picture either, I was just dressed all in white and smiling big at the camera, but Mom and I took one look at it and agreed I looked like a stripper. Sometimes, through no thought or intention, pictures of me are just kind of--dirty.

Or maybe I've just got a dirty mind.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

More Summer So Far

Crap, summer's almost over, isn't it? I'm going to resist the urge to open my work email on my home computer. I've already slept in late, watched excessive amounts of cartoons, and sat about the apartment in my own filth like an aged cat--I'm not about to start being responsible just yet.

Maybe I could read more Game of Thrones for an hour or four...

I did make it back down to New Jersey to pick berries, but there were no berries to be found. I did see an excessive amount of little wild rabbits, though. Appropriate, since I re-read "Watership Down" this summer.

Oh, and R sent me the pictures of our July hike in Wawayanda State Park!
I'm never going to wear the band shirts I own to an actual performance, so here I am wearing one out in the wilderness where no one can see me buy the bears. And bears are into dubstep anyway, so who cares what they think?

The BF and I had some time off together, so we took Metronorth up to New Haven, Connecticut. Metronorth is pretty fun. You get to leave from Grand Central Station, not Penn Station, and if you don't know what that means, let's just say there's a reason the evil aliens in "The Avengers" trashed the beautiful, elegant edifice of Grand Central instead of the dank, dystopian tunnels of Penn Station.
Aliens: "We're destroying this!" Everyone else: "Good."
Yale University is in New Haven. The campus and its immediate surroundings are quite nice, a bit like Cobble Hill with the little restaurants and bookstores and outrageously priced fair trade clothing and accessories. The rest of New Haven is like Spokane but with slightly better-dressed pedestrians.

I don't have pictures of them. The BF was camera-master that day and he took over 100 pictures of buildings, but nary a one of unfashionable townies.
Yes, so much more interesting than that guy with the top hat and the feather vest.
So that is the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which the BF would have me tell you was designed by Gordon Bunshaft and completed in 1963. I would make a crude joke about the architect's last name, and was thinking up a pretty good one, but then we went inside and--
Beinecke Library is this hollow white cube. In the center of the cube is a smaller glass cube full of books. 
The building is make of these slabs of marble that are thin enough for sunlight to leak through, but there are no windows or skylights. 
It's a little like being underwater.

The rare and ancient tomes, which include a complete and intact Gutenberg Bible, are protected from excessive light, heat and humidity in their glittering glass tower. 
There are these cool Mad Men-era seating areas with low leather chairs and marble tables, where you can sit at the foot of the tower and just stare up at the books resting behind the glass, like the jewelry box of some enormous, nerdy Titan.
I'm spent.
I don't want to read them. I don't even want to touch them. I just want to sit there forever in their presence.

Mostly because they're classics, so they'll be really slow and boring and have those "s" letters that look like "f" letters, which give me a headache. And that right there is why I'll never be a classics scholar. What else is going on in New Haven?
Smash cut!
The BF took this picture from across the street. As soon as he lowered the camera, I disappeared inside without even waiting for him to join me. When he finally made it across and came inside, I was already handing my money over and ready to leave. I found a Catwoman book. It made me happy.

Speaking of cats, the BF and I went to the Brooklyn Museum at MY request (gasp!) to see the Divine Feline exhibit in the Egyptian wing. It's a small exhibit in a side gallery, featuring cats and lions from their permanent collection.
The BF liked the bronze mother cat with kittens the best.
 You can't see it in this picture, but that little one looking into Mom's face has an open mouth. He's meowing at her! It's so cute, I can't stand it!

I went to the dentist yesterday and got my teeth spackled. Then I went to the farmer's market in Grand Army Plaza, because I'd hate to have a summer where I didn't go at least once to the biggest farmer's market in Brooklyn. But I had to make the trip into Manhattan to the Union Square farmer's market, because nobody in Grand Army Plaza was selling purple potatoes.

I got to Union Square just as the vendors were starting to load up their trucks and take down tents. But most were still open and about three booths in, I spotted a laminated sign with some authentic frontier gibberish name for what we in Hawaii call Okinawan sweet potatoes. A heavily bearded man with a waxed gray mustache took my money and said, "You're looking happy." I replied, "It's because I found my purple potatoes!"

I cooked some last night with fancy purple and yellow carrots in a curry paste I bought at Pearl River. The curry paste kind of covered up the flavor of the funny-colored roots, but I have lots more of each and will make many delicious dishes with them.

And when I go back to work tomorrow, I will sit on the lawn in the rose garden and eat cold purple potatoes and purple carrots from my pink Hello Kitty lunchbox. Like a proper grown-up.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bruising your bits on the Rodent Hour

Tuesday nights are for Rachel pretending to be cool.
You are listening to the Rodent Hour on Pratt Radio!
I know my life  may look like a glamorous whirlwind of wild hedonism and vice, but it's all a clever ruse, because the truth is I'm the kind of person who uses words like "ruse" and gets her microphone cut off when she goes on too long about X-Men. (In my defense if you listen to the broadcast on the Rodent Hour's soundcloud account, you'll hear the guitarist raising the topic. I just ran with it.)

So this is my side project, co-hosting a live music show on college radio. Which would be a LOT cooler if I didn't, in fact, graduate from college half a decade ago, and also if I actually went out to clubs and concerts to see the bands who play for us every week.

After Slim Wray played their set and my co-host Matt thwarted me and guitarist Hauser from talking about X-Men, we all gathered in the green room for the team photo. As you can see, I'm doing all right so far. At least I'm not trying to wear that sea foam green guitar with the avocado trim. I know my limits.

Here's what happened right after that picture was taken.

I offered to take the picture of the band and our sound techs with L's professional camera, which weights about seven pounds and is the size of a puppy. He put the strap around my neck and gently tried to guide my stubby fingers to the big "take picture" button. The enormous camera slips out of my creepy little child hands and falls.

My first thought was, Shit, my student's camera is going to shatter into a million expensive pieces on the floor! My second thought was, No, it'll be fine, the strap is around my neck.

I didn't have a third thought because at that point, the strap went taut and the camera swung right into my vagina.

I crumpled to my knees. Yelling "Fuck I bruised my pussy!" seemed inappropriate, so instead I squeaked, "If I was a guy, I'd be throwing up right now."

Had there been even one other woman in that room, I would have had a cold bottle of water on my vag and an arm to help me to the couch before you could say "why is that camera so fucking big?!"

But alas, there were only men. So immediately someone yelled, "Take her picture now!"

As you can see by the lack of a picture of Rachel crouching on the floor with her hands on her crotch, I ran away before that could happen.

There are many fun ways you can bruise your lady-bits at a rock show. I wouldn't recommend this one.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


Last Sunday, I went to Lincoln Center to see "Monkey: Journey to the West," a mixed-media stage show blending animation and music with live action. It's an adaptation of the classic Chinese novel "Journey to the West" by Wu Cheng'en, which is the epic tale of the Monkey King and his friends traveling to India to find  the true teachings of Buddha and bring them back to China.
Road trip!
This show is a collaboration between Chinese and English artists. Chen Shi-Zheng wrote the text and directed, Damon Albarn composed the music, and Jamie Hewlett did the animation and the costumes. I became interested in the show because I saw some of Hewlett's concept art for "Monkey" on one of my comic book websites. He drew the indie comic "Tank Girl" back in the 90s, so he pops up on my nerdy radar every now and again. 
There's a movie, but don't watch it. You still have so much to live for.
However, watching "Monkey," I wasn't reminded of "Tank Girl," or even Hewlett and Albarn's other famous collaboration, the band Gorillaz. This show tripped some unexpected memory triggers from way back in my small-kid time that had nothing to do with indie comics or animated musical collectives.
Fun fact: Albarn and Hewlett were both born in the Year of the Monkey.
One movie that had a great impact on me as a child was "Farewell My Concubine." It's the story of two Peking opera stars who meet as children in an opera school, rise to stardom together, and come crashing back down under the rising tide of the Cultural Revolution. There's some gay stuff, too, but that's a little too complicated to get into right now. 
In Peking opera, all parts are played by males, even the female roles, and an actor who specializes in the female roles is called a dan, and the dan in this story is in love with the jing actor, who specializes in playing generals and kings, but the jing doesn't love the dan because he's straight and instead marries a prostitute who--fuck it, just watch the movie.
I've only seen it once in my life, but certain scenes remain vivid and arresting in my imagination: a mother cutting off her little boy's finger in a snowy alley; two aging actors burning their costumes in a public square while the Red Guard of Chairman Mao jeer at them; a young man in a silk gown throwing a pair of slippers at the feet of a prostitute. 

I couldn't possibly have understood this movie as a child, considering it's subject matter. For a long time it was one of those movies whose name and plot I couldn't remember, and sometimes I wondered if I made it up. It was this mysterious childhood artifact that I carried around in my mind, like a one of those ancient tables covered in writing that historians can't decipher. 

And then came the Internet. All I had to do was Google "Chinese movie little boy finger cut off" and boom! "Farewell My Concubine."

I'm not a technophobe and I don't long for a time when I couldn't spend six hours on my couch watching cartoons on my laptop while I cruise my tumblr feed on my tablet. But sometimes I am nostalgic for a time when there were still mysteries that couldn't be solved in nanoseconds by our boxes of light that hold all the information in the universe. 

Anyway, I discovered that "Farewell My Concubine" was adapted from a novel of the same name by Lilian Lee. I read it for the first time in the summer of 2007 during my first trip to New York. I bought a copy of "Farewell" during my touristy visit to the famous Strand bookstore, along with a novel by Maxine Hong Kingston called "Tripmaster Monkey," which was about a theater troupe in 1960s San Francisco putting on a performance of--wait for it--"Journey to the West." 
I've long lost both of those books. They were probably abandoned at some point in my journeying, as I am wont to pick up books on the road and then leave them by the wayside because books are fucking heavy to lug around in a rolly-suitcase. 

BUT--watching "Monkey: Journey to the West" reminded me very strongly of all these works and clarified a lot that was unclear or confusing about them, especially the opera scenes in "Farewell My Concubine." There's only so much words can do to convey the feeling of watching a stage show, and the movie focused more on the lives of the performers than the performances, so I was always a little fuzzy on what Peking opera was like and how it differed from Western styles of musical theater. As soon as Monkey stepped out onto the stage, stamped his feet and sang "I am Monkey!", I got it. There's so much meaning and character development conveyed in how the performers move and speak, and you can tell what type of character they are--trickster, drunken lout, aging general, goddess, demon--by these rather minimalist markers. I suppose the word to use is "stylized," because the characters are archetypes that are revealed through their styles of speech and movement. 
Guess which one is the trickster Monkey King who stole the peaches of Heaven and pissed on the Buddha's palm.
Now I've been jazzed up for a while about going to see "Monkey: Journey to the West" because of the aforementioned Jamie Hewlett connection (and also because acrobats!). I told everyone at work I was going, since I tend to get excited about things and then not shut up about them because I am apparently a four-year-old. Anyway, my Tall Boss mentioned that his wife, who is a Beijing native, hated this show. I don't know if she saw it during of its first runs or if she just heard about it and disliked it on principal, but it didn't lessen my enjoyment of it. In fact, I can see why she might hate it. If you grew up knowing a bit about Peking opera, a show like this might seem like a gaudy, tasteless spectacle designed for a dumbed-down, Westernized audience without patience or appreciation for the purer traditional form. 

And that's fine. It's a valid opinion to have. I don't like hula 'auana. I think it's haolified and lacks the underlying power and majesty of hula kahiko, so I understand traditionalist objections to a work like "Monkey: Journey to the West." I wouldn't agree with them in this case, because I enjoyed myself immensely at "Monkey", but on the other hand, I know nothing about Peking opera except that I think they allow women on the stage these days. 

I bring this up because both "Farewell My Concubine" and "Tripmaster Monkey" dealt with the preservation of traditional performance styles, and traditional values, in the face of sweeping societal upheavals. Do you change the show when your audience changes in order to remain relevant in a modern world? Or do you preserve the show as it was in the past, even at the risk of losing your audience, so the audience doesn't lose or forget something about themselves? 

Of course there's no right answer. Or rather, the right answer is somewhere in between. The tricky part is that you can't tell whether the answer was right nor not until several generations down the road, when your descendants look at your decisions and either praise or curse you for the history you made for them. 

You just have to leap, and hope for the best. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Summer so far

It's an on-time post! A rare occurrence this summer, which is weird because I'm actually doing a lot of activities. I just get to post day and think, "No one wants to read about that." Somehow I think my life is actually less interesting when I'm being social.

For example, so far this summer I've been to three dinners with the BF's family--once for the Fourth of July, once for some English cousins moving to the city in the fall--and just last Friday, a dinner with cousins that live in the city but we literally never see except at Passover. New York is weird that way. Your relatives can live 20 minutes away on the subway and you'll see them maybe three times a year. Is it like this other places?

Also this summer, the BF and I went to see a South African stand-up comedian at The Culture Project on Bleeker Street. I love stand-up, and this guy was great. His name is Trevor Noah. You should follow him on twitter or facebook or whatever platform you use to avoid reality (I prefer tumblr).

A couple weekends back, R and I went hiking in Wawayanda State Park in New Jersey, and she still hasn't sent me any pictures of that hike except for this one. Hopefully that will change in the near future.
It's a turtle.
And on Bastille Day, the BF and I celebrated our 6 year anniversary. We each got to pick an activity, and I don't mean to brag, but my activity pick was amazing. We took the free ferry to Governor's Island to ride on 19th century carnival equipment.
I am killing summer.
That is a bicycle carousel. You turn it by pedaling (the BF says there's a motor in the center, too, but I prefer to think that it turns by the power of imagination and joy!), and it goes both backward and forward. BF says it's much easier to pedal backward than it is to pedal forward, oddly enough. I wouldn't know, because I sat in one of the red velvet seats and put my feet up like a princess while he sat on one of the dinky bike seats and did all the hard work.
I just hotted up the place.
I love Governor's Island. It's a car-free national park, and the free ferry leaves every half-hour from the park by my apartment. They moved the ferry docking this year; it used to be right across the East River from me, and the Battery Tunnel vent shaft, but now it's about a quarter of a mile down stream. The ride there is longer, so there's time to admire the scenery and watch the containers getting unloaded on the docks in front of of my building (which I can juuuust see over the big pile of salt).

The city has been doing a lot of refurbishment on the island the last couple of years, turning the old army base buildings into gift shops and pop-up art galleries and museum. There's art installations on the lawns, tree houses, playgrounds, bike paths and barnyards.
Barnyards designed by Rene Magritte.
The BF's activity turned out to be a walking tour of Jewish heritage sites on the Lower East Side that lasted for three hours in the 95 degree heat. But y'know--heritage, and I got to meet a kitty in an old synagogue that's been turned into an art space.
Highlight of the day for me.
Also we got to eat the most amazing pickles at the end of the tour, and the BF got me bubble tea as a reward for not whining once.

Later that evening, we went out for Ethiopian food and ate spiced pastes with our hands. A good time was had by all!

And have you been listening to my radio show? We're having a short summer season. Last night, my co-host was away on vacation, so I brought in my friend J to work the soundboard (and she thought I was joking when I told her I couldn't turn on my own microphone). J hooked her computer up to the studio speakers so we got to watch the first 20 minutes of "Captain America" with the audio blaring out on the brand spanking new equipment like we were in Martin Scorsese's living room. The band Hurrah! A Bolt of Light played an amazing set and we all ate cornbread. You can listen to the whole broadcast here if you missed.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Continuing the annual tradition of going to at least one wedding a year with the BF, two weekends ago we were in Buffalo. Specifically, Lockport, which is about 20 minutes south of Niagra Falls. We didn't go to the falls. Instead, we sat in a parked car outside our hotel. This was a lot more fun than it sounds.
We have more pictures of this car than we do of the actual wedding.
The wedding was fun. It was in a vineyard, so there were some very bold chickens and some ponies across the road for us to admire. Being rather distantly connected to the bride and groom, our table had to wait the longest for dinner. But we made up for it at the morning-after breakfast when the newlyweds sat at our table and we all had mimosas together. We won brunch!

We toured a house in Buffalo designed by Frank Lloyd Wright the day after the wedding. The BF very impressively got us out of Lockport, to our activity, and then to the airport entirely on Buffalo public transportation. It's weird to get out of New York and use another city's transit. There's a lot more ugly people on the buses in Buffalo than there are in New York. I don't know why this is, I'm just putting it out there.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Neil Gaiman at Brooklyn Academy of Music

 "Why are we here? Obviously it's to suffer and die and create art." Neil Gaiman, 2010.

Last Tuesday, Neil Gaiman's new novel "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" hit bookstores. I was fortunate enough to be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a live reading, followed by a Q&A with the author.

If I could go back in time and tell my wee thirteen-year-old Big Island Rachel self that she would live to see her favorite author Neil Gaiman speak not just once, but twice, I'd slap myself at the decadence of the suggestion.
And then engage in a fight to the death, because I'd watched enough scifi at 13 to know that future selves are almost always Terminators.

Regular readers remember that I saw Gaiman speak at the New Yorker Festival in 2010, which is where I got that great quote above. The format of this event was a little different. Since he was launching a book instead of just rambling on (awesomely) about things that interested him, the setting was more formal and structured. The house lights were turned off like it was a proper performance, the Q&A session was much shorter, and at the end, instead of just coming down off the stage directly into the swirling crowd of his fans, he was shunted off to a little room to sign book after book for a massive line of people that went out the door of BAM, down the front steps, and wrapped around the outside of the building.

I didn't end up staying in that massive line to get my book signed. R and I decided by 9:45 that getting up for work the next morning was more important than standing in the rain for another three hours to get three seconds of face time with the author, so we just got copies of the pre-signed books and went home. Sometimes being a grown-ass woman means you have to sacrifice your nerd-cred for your career.
My boss told me I can't wear my Catwoman outfit to the office anymore. Sorry, Past Self.
We were both kind of bummed that we couldn't stay to meet Gaiman. R even had a hand-made mask she was going to give him, because Gaiman accepts tributes from fans like he's Lord of the Nerd-Manor, and I was going to take a picture of him wearing the mask to put on tumblr so everyone would be jealous. Oh, such plans we had!

But I got to see my favorite author read from his new book, talk about writing his new book, and tell a story about a teacup in the town of Gaiman, Argentina. Nothing about the experience was spoiled because I didn't actually get within spitting distance of the poor guy, who had already done a week's worth of publicity in England before his appearance at BAM and was leaving at 4AM the next morning for the American book tour.

Besides, as Peter Aguero said when he introduced Gaiman that night, "He's just a dude who wrote a book about sand."

Speaking of which, I'm reviewing "The Sandman" series over at Big Island Rachel's Books. You can read along with me!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Movie Review: "Much Ado About Nothing"

I’m fairly certain that I was the only person at Lincoln Center who went to this movie because it was directed by the man who did “The Avengers.” Everyone else was there to see a film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” I was there because some small part of me secretly hoped  the Hulk was going to show up.

Hulk rage against the dying of the light!
Not that I don’t like Shakespeare. What kind of English-speaking writer would I be if I presumed to have an opinion about Shakespeare other than, “He’s the greatest English-speaking writer forever and all time”? Shakespeare isn’t some damn Facebook page, his works are beyond “like” or “dislike.”

That said, you can like or dislike adaptations of Shakespeare, because some are better than others at balancing the brilliance of the (admittedly archaic) language with the universality of the characters and subject matter. It’s tricky to pull off. You need actors who feel comfortable with the language, and for movie adaptations, a director who can coax the five-act play structure into a decently-paced three-act film for the modern movie-going audience.

Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is a good movie, but I actually find its flaws more interesting than its strengths, because its flaws illustrate why a good Shakespeare adaptation is so hard to achieve, and they ultimately highlight the strengths of this movie just by virtue of contrast. As strange as it may seem, this movie is good because it’s not great.

Also, everyone drinks A LOT. I don't think it's exaggeration to say that every character is hammered in every scene. Leonato passes out at the breakfast table in middle of a conversation with the Prince, it's fucking hysterical.
And it is good. I wouldn’t have guessed that Whedon, who made his mark in the science fiction genre, would even be interested in adapting a light-hearted Shakespeare comedy. But he is a master of quotable dialogue and the ensemble cast, so why the hell not? I wouldn’t have guessed that Kenneth Branagh, director of the greatest modern Shakespeare movie adaptations and Shakespearian actor himself, would ever direct a superhero action flick, and yet his “Thor” ended up being one of the best of the pre-Avengers Marvel movies.

Google "Thor" and this is the first image you get. Rightly so.
For those who don’t know the story, “Much Ado About Nothing” has a couple of plot threads running through it. The prince and a bunch of various noble-people gather at the Lord Leonato’s country estate for partying and general merriment. Leonato’s daughter Hero falls in love with Claudio and they decide to get married. This makes everyone else at the party so happy that they decide to spread the love around and see if they can’t get Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, to fall in love with the prince’s friend, Benedick.

Beatrice and Benedick are the main characters in this play. They hate each other and spend most of their time either saying to other people how much they hate each other, or just saying it to each other’s faces. Incredible feats of insults ensue.

"Jerk." "Butthole."
Whedon makes the interesting choice to show that they hate each other because they once had a disastrous one-night stand, and I say “interesting” because this is where the adaptation starts to wobble on its foundations a bit. Like Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” this movie uses the original Shakespearian language of the play, but places the action in a modern setting, so there are still princes and lords saying “forsooth” a lot, but they use cell phones and guns. When this technique works, as it largely does in “Much Ado About Nothing,” it achieves that tricky balancing act I mentioned earlier, keeping the magic of the language intact while updating the setting to demonstrate the timelessness of Shakespeare’s work. But the problem is sex.

Isn’t it always?

"They want how much for the swing? What if we just got the harness?"
Attitudes about sex, especially women’s sexuality, aren’t timeless. A Shakespeare adaptation with a modern sensibility can get away with showing Benedick and Beatrice, an unmarried couple, in bed together in the prologue. A chronologically-accurate adaptation couldn’t do that, because that’s not something noblewomen were allowed to do in the sixteenth century (notice I say allowed). It’s not the one-night stand that bothers me about this movie, but how it contradicts the main conflict of the original story.

Bear with me while I lay down some exposition: Claudio and Hero fall in love and they’re going to get married on the morrow with the blessing of the prince and her lord father. But the prince’s half-brother John is an asshole and he tells Claudio that Hero is a slut, just this massive ho-bag with a gaping vagina like a whale’s mouth (to summarize). John raises enough suspicions in Claudio’s mind that Claudio spies on Hero the night before the wedding and sees her fucking some random dude. Claudio is actually seeing one of John’s servants fucking Hero’s maid, who is wearing Hero’s wedding dress because of class resentment, I guess. At the wedding the next day, Claudio spurns Hero at the altar and calls her a massive whale-vagina’d slutty ho-bag in front of her father, the prince, the priest, and all the wedding guests. Hero faints, Claudio and all the guests leave, and the priest hatches a scheme with Hero’s father, Benedick and Beatrice to get revenge on Claudio. Since everyone saw Hero faint, the priest will tell everyone that Hero died of heartbreak from Claudio’s lies. As soon as either the priest, Leonato, Beatrice or Benedick can find proof that Hero came to the altar a virgin, they’ll reveal to Claudio that Hero is still alive, and then the two can get married as planned because he won’t be grossed out by her used and tattered vagina anymore.

I didn't want to search for "tattered vagina."
You know, when I’m watching Shakespeare, I understand everything that’s happening without difficulty. But when I try to summarize it afterwards, it’s always super-complicated. A topic for another post, perhaps.

The centerpiece of “Much Ado About Nothing” is the most epic slut-shaming in fiction. Slut-shaming is wrong, based as it is in male control over women’s bodies, but I’m just going to take it at face value in this instance and skip the feminist sanctimony. (Those who know me are popping their monocles right now, but seriously, criticizing this play for the characters' fixation on virginity is like criticizing the characters in "King Lear" for having a monarch instead of a democratically elected leader.) It’s a realistic scene for the time and culture in which it was written, but it feels inappropriate in a modern setting, especially after Whedon opened the movie with an example of thoroughly modern sexual behavior.

The opening scene of Beatrice and Benedick’s one-night stand, while not in the play (I don't think), is a good artistic and narrative choice because it gives context for their hostility that a modern audience can understand and relate to. At the same time, it's a bad choice because it contradicts the central conflict of the play, which can’t be updated to modern times because it reflects incredibly antiquated notions about women, sex and politics. Not that we don’t have slut-shaming in the modern world, but it’s generally accepted by mainstream society that women will have sex before they marry--and also we don’t live in a society where political power is hereditary and depends on men being reasonably certain that their children are actually theirs, which means our value of virginity is largely symbolic rather than a political and societal necessity for the peaceful transfer of power.
Values may change, but all people from across the ages can agree that incest is creepy.
However, although Whedon didn’t entirely succeed in adapting sixteenth century sexual mores to the present day, every other aspect of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” including that gorgeous language, survives and thrives in the modern update. The fact that the sexual stuff doesn’t translate well makes it all the more astounding that everything else does: the prince and Claudio giggling over a text; the bastard Prince John and his girlfriend handcuffed with plastic zip ties; the official photographer ducking through the crowd to take pictures of the lords shaking hands; and especially the castle guards re-imagined as a group of bumbling 1970s-inspired cops, with the sunglasses and the mustaches and everything. It’s a jarring moment when Claudio starts screaming at Hero for her sluttish ways, but it’s only jarring because the experience up to then had been such a pleasant immersion in beautiful imagery and beautiful language. I didn’t know I was so into the movie until I was taken out of it.

If “Much Ado About Nothing” is playing near you, you should go and see it. If you only know Whedon from his genre work, I think you'll enjoy this more intimate glimpse of his skills as a filmmaker. And if you don't know Whedon at all and just want to see a good Shakespeare movie, you'll be more than satisfied with this fun, and yes, sexy adaptation.

Plus, it's shot in black and white, and nothing makes me feel more grown up than watching a movie in black and white and actually enjoying it.

Final Grade: B+. Weird tonal problems aside, it's a good movie. Recommended for fans of Shakespeare, romantic comedies, witty repartee, and Joss Whedon.

Did I mention Nathan Fillion plays Dogberry? It takes a very particular kind of geek--one versed in scifi, online culture, and Shakespeare--to know just how awesome this is.